Travis Kelce, George Kittle and the completely unfair market for tight ends

Tight end George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers and tight end Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Tight end George Kittle #85 of the San Francisco 49ers and tight end Travis Kelce #87 of the Kansas City Chiefs (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images) /

Travis Kelce could thank George Kittle soon for resetting the tight end market.

Every year, new high financial marks are set at nearly every position in the NFL as another wave of free agents are given record-setting deals in order to sign with teams flush with salary-cap space. Given the ever-increasing popularity of the sport, the finances follow suit and that means the league’s best continuing to one-up each other with new contracts as the cap rises.

Unfortunately for tight ends, they’ve been left out of this process for quite some time.

The NFL is nearing the $40 million mark for the first time with Patrick Mahomes looming extension with the Kansas City Chiefs. Wide receivers have crested the $20 million annual mark and even topped that with Julio Jones’ average salary of $22 million. Elite pass rushers like Frank Clark and Chris Jones can expect to average $20 million as well with every new contract.

Other positions are climbing as well, even if they’re not around those same figures. The NFL’s best pass defenders are now earning north of $15M and $16M these days, while linebackers are even closer to the mark with examples like Bobby Wagner’s annual salary of a cool $18 million.

Through it all, tight end salaries have remained basically the same since Travis Kelce signed his current extension with the Kansas City Chiefs. That’s four-and-a-half years—far more than the average NFL career—since the meter really moved for tight ends. Even today, Kelce is ranked third among tight ends in average annual salary and was only bested spring by Hunter Henry and Austin Hooper in new deals with the L.A. Chargers and Cleveland Browns, respectively.

Here’s what’s so silly about the NFL’s tight end market: Travis Kelce’s highest cap hit at any point in his career is $11.2 million. That ranks him at No. 121 overall among players in overall cap hit this year. Let’s restate this in a different way: Travis Kelce’s most rewarding year financially in the NFL was still behind 120 other players in that same year. A player regarded as the best at his position and voted one of the top 25 or 30 players in the league overall has been forced to settle, financially speaking, for a fraction of what he should have been making all along.

The only thing Travis Kelce can blame is the tight end market.

The idea is silly if you think about it. Perhaps other tight ends deserve to make that sort of ceiling. After all, most tight ends are a third option in the passing game at best. Most tight ends are specialists of some kind, an excellent blocker, a special teams maven, a big target with good hands. Kelce, along with San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle, are the rarest of their kind, well-rounded players who create total mismatches on the field—elite options in the passing game that elevate their respective offenses to championship levels (see the Super Bowl matchup last year).

At this point, Kelce has two more seasons to play on his current deal but Kittle is in the midst of negotiations right now. Early rumors made it sound as if Kittle would be paid well only in regards to his position—the typical approach for any extension but one that would keep the ceiling on tight ends in general. Here’s what 49ers general manager John Lynch had to say in a recent interview on 95.7 The Game:

"“George isn’t going anywhere. We’re going to work hard to try to get it done. I think they’ve got motivation just to really reset the tight end market, as do we, for him. It’s just finding that sweet spot, where that is.”"

That “sweet spot” refers to a workable settlement between expectations and there’s no doubt the Niners will be pointing to the likes of Kelce averaging under $10 million a year as some sort of low baseline. You can almost hear someone from the front office argue, “Look even the best only make…”

Fortunately, the media has turned in Kittle’s favor on the issue. Daniel Jeremiah from NFL Network recently suggested that Kittle’s salary could creep toward $20 million, an incredible jump that would instantly correct the market’s glacial pace of growth at the position. While the contract would have no comparable measures, that’s only because the NFL’s way of doing things when it comes to tight ends sounds a lot like, “Well, we’ve always done it this way.”

Even with the chatter that Kittle could approach $20 million is good news for Kelce if he’s amenable to a longer playing career than his contract currently states. For a man who is in the midst of setting NFL records for consistent production, the ceiling is clearly Kelce’s to set. And if he wants to add a couple of years to his current deal, he has every right and reason to demand to be paid Tyreek Hill money ($18 million) or more before the sun sets on his earning potential—at least on the field.

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